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Project-Based Learning vs. Problem-Based Learning vs. X-BL

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education
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At the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), we've been keeping a list of the many types of "_____- based learning" we've run across over the years:

  • Case-based learning
  • Challenge-based learning
  • Community-based learning
  • Design-based learning
  • Game-based learning
  • Inquiry-based learning
  • Land-based learning
  • Passion-based learning
  • Place-based learning
  • Problem-based learning
  • Proficiency-based learning
  • Service-based learning
  • Studio-based learning
  • Team-based learning
  • Work-based learning

. . . and our new fave . . .

  • Zombie-based learning (look it up!)

Let's Try to Sort This Out

The term "project learning" derives from the work of John Dewey and dates back to William Kilpatrick, who first used the term in 1918. At BIE, we see project-based learning as a broad category which, as long as there is an extended "project" at the heart of it, could take several forms or be a combination of:

  • Designing and/or creating a tangible product, performance or event
  • Solving a real-world problem (may be simulated or fully authentic)
  • Investigating a topic or issue to develop an answer to an open-ended question

So according to our "big tent" model of PBL, some of the newer "X-BLs" -- problem-, challenge- and design-based -- are basically modern versions of the same concept. They feature, to varying degrees, all of BIE's Essential Elements of PBL, although each has its own distinct flavor. (And by the way, each of these three, along with project-based learning, falls under the general category of inquiry-based learning -- which also includes research papers, scientific investigations, Socratic Seminars or other text-based discussions, etc. The other X-BLs might involve some inquiry, too, but now we're getting into the weeds . . .)

Other X-BLs are so named because they use a specific context for learning, such as a particular place or type of activity. They may contain projects within them, or have some of the 8 Essential Elements, but not necessarily. For example, within a community- or service-based learning experience, students may plan and conduct a project that improves their local community or helps the people in it, but they may also do other activities that are not part of a project. Conversely, students may learn content and skills via a game-based or work-based program that does not involve anything like what we would call a PBL-style project.

Problem-Based Learning vs. Project-Based Learning

Because they have the same acronym, we get a lot of questions about the similarities and differences between the two PBLs. We even had questions ourselves -- some years ago we created units for high school economics and government that we called "problem-based." But we later changed the name to "Project-Based Economics" and "Project-Based Government" to eliminate confusion about which PBL it was.

We decided to call problem-based learning a subset of project-based learning -- that is, one of the ways a teacher could frame a project is "to solve a problem." But problem-BL does have its own history and set of typically-followed procedures, which are more formally observed than in other types of projects. The use of case studies and simulations as "problems" dates back to medical schools in the 1960s, and problem-BL is still more often seen in the post-secondary world than in K-12, where project-BL is more common.

Problem-based learning typically follow prescribed steps:

  1. Presentation of an "ill-structured" (open-ended, "messy") problem
  2. Problem definition or formulation (the problem statement)
  3. Generation of a "knowledge inventory" (a list of "what we know about the problem" and "what we need to know")
  4. Generation of possible solutions
  5. Formulation of learning issues for self-directed and coached learning
  6. Sharing of findings and solutions

If you're a project-BL teacher, this probably looks pretty familiar, even though the process goes by different names. Other than the framing and the more formalized steps in problem-BL, there's really not much conceptual difference between the two PBLs -- it’s more a question of style and scope:

Chart showing the similarities and differences between project-based- and problem-based-learning

A Note on Math and the Two PBLs

Teachers at some K-12 schools that use project-BL as a primary instructional method, such as the New Technology Network and Envision Schools, have begun saying that they use problem-BL for math. Especially at the secondary level, teaching math primarily through multi-disciplinary projects has proved challenging. (Not that occasional multi-disciplinary projects including math are a bad idea!) By using problem-BL, these teachers feel they can design single-subject math projects -- aka "problems" -- that effectively teach more math content by being more limited in scope than many typical project-BL units. Tackling a "problem," for example, may not involve as much independent student inquiry, nor the creation of a complex product for presentation to a public audience.

How Does This Tale of Two PBLs End?

One could argue that completing any type of project involves solving a problem. If students are investigating an issue -- say, immigration policy -- the problem is deciding where they stand on it and how to communicate their views to a particular audience in a video. Or if students are building a new play structure for a playground, the problem is how to build it properly, given the users' wants and needs and the various constraints of safe, approved construction. Or even if they're writing stories for a book to be published about the Driving Question "How do we grow up?", the problem is how to express a unique, rich answer to the question.

So the semantics aren't worth worrying about, at least not for very long. The two PBLs are really two sides of the same coin. What type of PBL you decide to call your, er . . . extended learning experience just depends on how you frame it. The bottom line is the same: both PBLs can powerfully engage and effectively teach your students!

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John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

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MattsonConsult's picture

I agree with your comments to the letter. Project-based learning is more in keeping with what is found in the business environment. A cross-functional team of business department people come together to develop projects that focus on business growth, competitive strategies, etc. The end result is usually identifying measurable and operational outcomes. I believe this could be done with students, as long as they have proper guidance and direction.

Eliot013's picture

I am looking at implementing a problem-based learning approach into my classroom. It is interesting to see the difference between the two PBL's. By getting buy in from the students and providing authentic learning experiences which relate to real world problems you are going to develop intrinsic motivation in the students, especially in boys. The problem-based learning approach allows them to deconstruct and reconstruct knowledge in a way that is relevant to them. An excellent read about the comparisons between the two. End result of them both is high levels of engagement!

Julio Voltolini's picture

In the case of experiments using the scientific method steps like plant growing in the sun and in the shadow, is this a PROJECT based learning and not a PROBLEM based learning, right?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Julio! I think it has more to do with how you frame up the work. If students are solving a problem (as opposed to creating something to show they understand how it works), then I'd call it Problem Based. For scientific method projects, a Problem-based approach might be a more open-ended "How/why does X happen?" while a project-based approach might be a more traditional lab.

I wrote a bit of a response in the comments and then fleshed it out more fuly on my own blog here:

John Larmer's picture
John Larmer
Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

It depends how the plant-growing experiment was framed; was it part of a project in which students were proposing (or actually constructing) a garden or landscape for a specific location? Or were students asked to solve a problem like, "What can we grow in a garden that does not get much sunlight?" If the problem-based task also involved constructing or creating a plan for a garden, that would pretty much make it a "project" -- so as you can see, trying to define the differences between the two is more of an academic exercise.
But note: simply conducting an experiment, by itself, is neither kind of PBL.

Julio Voltolini's picture

Guys.... Thanks! I am learning a lot here :)
In my case, the kids are testing hypothesis using all steps of the Scientific Method but... THEY discuss how to design the project, the sample size, how to choose species and to monitore plant growth. After, under my supervision, they were analysing the data set and now they are writing a research report. In this case I assume this as a PROJECT and not just a problem because we are not solving a problem or constructing something.

Christine Kincaid Dewey's picture
Christine Kincaid Dewey
High School Mathematics teacher from Warren, MI

Secondary math teacher here. I'd like your opinion on how you would categorize this activity: Students learn a unit on probability. Then they are given a scenario: a carnival owner is looking to buy new carnival games. Their task: create a carnival game designed to make money. Analyze that game theoretically and well as experimentally (by (1) playing the game 50 times, (2) designing a simulation for 500 trials, and (3) writing a JAVA program for 5,000 trials). Create the actual game. Write a paper that not only explains the games but shows the theoretical and experimental analysis AND write a summary to convince the carnival owner to buy YOUR group's game. Games must have some sort of theme and the argument to buy should include more than just the expected amount of $$ to me made by the owner. Students have 2-3 weeks to work on the project. How would YOU categorize this activity?

John Larmer's picture
John Larmer
Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

Hi Christine,
I'd say that could be either PBL, or even "design-based... " or "challenge-based..." -- depending on what one wanted to call it. Frame it as a project that's more of a "simulation" than "fully authentic" or as a "problem" that a fictitious carnival owner has--it's still the same unit/experience. That's how these categories are - mainly theoretical, and different people might have their reasons for calling it one thing or another, but does it really matter? It sounds good, whatever it is - its length and multiple components make it sound more complex than a classic problem-based learning experience, so I'd say it sounds more like a project, but someone else could just as well call it a complex problem-based learning experience.

createnotregurgitate's picture
Soldier in the education revolution

Thank you for the clarity, John Larmer.
I can't help feeling that in all the X - BLs we may be moving in opposite directions at the same time. While this diffent methodology does bring many of the desirable educational outcomes such as social engagement and problem solving at a human level, does the tyranny of the curriculum and its master, formal, public evaluation, make the metodology somewhat sterile?
Is it possible that in all our X-BLs we must ultimately deliver the curriculum which may well mean that our new units and projects will not be able to allow students and teacher to go beyond, to question, create and deliver solutions?
If the curriculum is constructed with the rationale of knowledge and skill acquacition which is coupled to a formal, public evaluation system designed to evaluate said knowledge and skills, can the X-BLs have any rationale or future?
Is it not the curriculum that must be revised in order to produce an education which can deliver the positives so well described by Larmer here and so many others elsewhere.
I am of course thinking of the national curriculum produced and projected by most countries in the world, in private as well as government instututions, some to a draconian degree.

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